This morning, I received a link to an article in The Atlantic.
It was written by Chris Koentges and was published earlier this year (19 February).
It is a fascinating account of coaching. The focus is Urpo Ylönen (Upi), a Finnish ice hockey goaltending coach.
Urpo is seventy-one years old. Chris discusses Upi’s development as a coach in a way that has powerful messages for all coaches.
I enjoyed learning about Upi’s early days playing ice ball in the street in unstructured play and thought this positioned him well to be one of those ice hockey goalkeeper’s without a face mask. The absence of a mask encouraged Upi to try to catch the puck as often as possible rather than blocking it. Chris noted of Upi:
- “The stick he built had an unorthodox angle that allowed him to crouch closer to the ice … keeping him balanced and mobile”.
- As he was “comparatively small, he relentlessly practiced his skating”.
- He copied “all the older goalies, picking up pieces of their game and making them his own”.
He was the goaltender for Finland for 14 years.
Becoming a Coach
Upi was invited by the Finnish Ice Hockey Association to develop an national goaltender coaching system. Each region in Finland has a goalkeeper coach and Upi’s model has been adopted in other countries. His approach is based on the goaltender staying between the net and the puck.
The puck handler wants to outwait you. Wants you to lose mobility, to fall for any one of an endless series of fakes, so that you go down on the ice and abandon your form. The job gets more complicated when you add a second, third, fourth, and fifth skater to the attack. The goalie needs to keep track of each body, all the while focusing on the one with the puck. Some of these skaters will drift into seams beyond your field of vision; others will plant themselves right in front of you to screen your view entirely.
Upi emphasises the importance of the goaltender skating and catching the puck or deflecting it at an angle away from the goal crease.
Chris illustrated Upi’s coaching with a discussion of Miikka Sakari Kiprusoff. Miika worked with Upi from the age of 12. His training prioritised hand-eye coordination … “controlling the puck and feeling it”. They played badminton to emphasise footwork and lateral movement (and subsequently wrestling).
Upi worked with Miikka and other goaltenders on mind set. “We catch the puck from everywhere—and it might even come to your head. You can take it with your head. You don’t close your eyes, you don’t be afraid.”
This mind set is focussed on long-term flourishing and encourages a “more patient and inclusive style of youth coaching in Finland”.
I think Chris makes a profound point about coaching when he writes of Upi:
Eventually, I realized his deepest purpose: to ease the fears of any human being who would subject himself to such a calling (goaltending).
I am delighted I received an alert (from John Kessel) to this article. I do think there are important cultural issues embedded in Upi’s coaching. But I believe there are some very important generic issues here too.
I am particularly interested in Upi’s understanding of the essence of goaltending and his identification of first principles.
I sensed from Chris’s article that Upi had remarkable observation skill that seemed to amplify his inner calm. He knows goaltending and locates it into a much wider awareness of game playing.
Perhaps I am attracted to his coaching because i grew up with unstructured play too. Street football in a rough laneway gave me confidence in proprioception as well as perception … and possibly my own passion for coaching.
I followed up on Chris’s writing and found this image of Terry Sawchuck:
The photograph was taken in 1966. A make-up artist and doctor recreated the 400+ stitches he had received in 16 years of goaltending.
This convinced me of Upi’s mission (even in an era of protective masks) to ease fears whilst being able to coach a very different approach to goaltending.
There is lots to learn here.
Terry Sawchuck (Ralph Morse, Getty Images)